HOMER (AP) -- For four foreign exchange students visiting Homer this year, arriving in Alaska brought the usual cultural shock -- a far off, cold land dramatically different from their homelands in the tropics. Typical of other exchange students, they dealt with the usual challenges of adapting to climate, a new language and different customs. They also face a challenge other exchange students might not have had: Overcoming prejudice about their faith.
Visiting Homer this year are: Salma Hamed, 15, from Cairo, Egypt, living with Susanne and Roy Wilson; Zumrati Ibrahim, 16, of Nairobi, Kenya, living with Cathy Knott; Ismail "Izzy" Mohamed, 17, of Mombassa, Kenya, living with Dan and Sallie Rediske; and Ella Priliandini, 17, of Aceh, Indonesia, living with Janet and Pat McNary.
All are Muslim, and all come from countries with significant Muslim populations.
Under the Youth Exchange Studies program administered in Alaska by AFS-USA, students from countries with significant Muslim populations are attending Homer High School this year. YES was started nationally in 2002 by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. YES students first came to Anchorage last year, but this is the first time YES students are in Homer. Other YES students also are visiting Juneau. To accept YES students, communities have to agree to take at least three students as a group.
In a political climate where some Americans consider all Muslims terrorists, the Homer YES students deal with that perception often.
"The major thing they like to talk about in high school is terrorists," said Mohamed. "What we are doing is making sure they understand that not all Muslims are terrorists. It's specific individuals."
Arriving in August, the YES students came during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month characterized by sunrise-to-sunset fasting. That alone presented an issue. On Aug. 11 at the start of Ramadan, the sun rose about 6 a.m. and set about 10 p.m. in Homer -- a 16-hour fasting day.
In consultation with Imam Mohamad Bashir Arafat of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation in San Francisco, who advises the YES program, the Homer Muslims were allowed to fast on the more reasonable San Francisco schedule of 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"That was a big challenge not just for the host family, but for the students," said Angie White of Anchorage, the Alaska YES coordinator. "Not only are they jet lagged and adapting to a new culture, but they're fasting as well."
Hamed explained the significance of the Ramadan fast.
"It is our pleasure to do that for our God and our religion," she said. "You're not eating and drinking and you're not smoking. You can't do drugs and alcohol and chewing gum. Also, be careful with your words. Swear words break the fast, too."
Ramadan is usually spent in the comfort of family. Leaving during Ramadan would be like a Christian leaving home during Christmas, White explained.
Last week, the YES/AFS-USA students talked about their countries at Homer Middle School as part of the middle school's International Education Week. At lunch they also shared a meal catered by Two Sisters Bakery. Mohamed had chosen to fast that day, and didn't even take a drink of water.
Food has been a big issue for both students and families. Like Jews, Muslims do not eat pork. While ham and bacon can be obvious, other foods made from pigs aren't as clear. Students have to learn about things like sausage on pizzas or hot dogs, White said. Families have to be careful not to cook food using pans that have been used to prepare pork.
To support each other, the Homer YES students do many activities as a cluster. During the school year they make presentations about their cultures and countries. Students also have to do 10 hours of community work service and plan a community event, White said.
"The students learn to interact with each other," she said. "They also have some sort of support system. It's such a foreign environment for them."
In their middle school talks, the YES students gave slide presentations each had put together and answered questions. All come from large cities, from 20 million in Cairo to 100,000 in Aceh. They all spoke of long school days. Priliandini and Ibrahim both go to boarding school back home, although Priliandini can go home on weekends while Ibrahim is away for three months at a time. Their religious customs vary. Priliandini wears the hajib, the traditional woman's head scarf, while Hamed does not cover her hair. They all spoke of the sometimes extreme heat of their home countries.
"In the summer, it's really boiling," Hamed said. "It's so hot you have to use air conditioners."
That lead to their universal reaction to Alaska. When asked what the most bizarre thing was they've seen in Alaska, they had similar answers.
"Snow," said Mohamed.
"The snow and skiing," said Priliandini. "I'm falling every five seconds."
"Homecoming and the snow," said Hamed.
"The snow and the moose," said Ibrahim.
Mohamed noted that Swahili, the language he speaks in Kenya, has no word for "snow."
When Hamed came to Alaska in August, she was stunned, she said.
"The girls are wearing shorts. What? Oh my God? Shorts?" Hamed said. "I was wearing pants and a lot of jackets."
Homer High School Principal Alan Gee said the experience of having the YES students has been good for the school.
"We have a great, diverse group," he said. "I think they have challenged some of the perceptions of our students -- and staff perhaps as well -- in explaining their beliefs, their customs."
"I think a lot of them are having a really good experience," White said of the YES students. "Most of them were really shocked that they were coming to Alaska. Most of them seem to be pretty good spirited about that."
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